My first therapy experiences occurred in the 1970’s, when Gestalt Therapy and dramatic breakthroughs were all the rage. Connecting with one’s inner child and going toe to toe with the oppressive, internalized parental figure was the common and popular approach. Part of my training was with a descendant of Bob and Mary Goulding, the developers of a powerful mashup of Gestalt and Transactional Analysis which they called Redecision Therapy. I also experienced Lifespring, which was a “kinder, gentler” cousin of the notorious Erhard Seminar Training, a very intense process that would blast through people’s defenses, with the support and (I believe) coercion of their many peers, sitting in the big conference room with them. I had dear friends who went through Lifespring and came out with heightened energy and focus. They would repeat to me a mantra of “reasons or results” which dismissed rationalizations for not pursuing your given life path. If people possessed the ego-strength to deal with the rapid dismantling of their carefully constructed and long-held psychological defenses, they might benefit from this dramatic epiphany counseling. I have colleagues today who endorse dramatic approaches such as this, but I remain skeptical, myself. It has been my observation (and experience) that dramatic “breakthroughs,” when facilitated (or engineered) by a therapist have a continued risk of falling back into previous modes of thought and behavior, unless reinforced thereafter. It seems to me another example of the tendency to find a single “magic bullet” which will cure distress, without the investment of time and care which accompanies the incremental change that is more organic and less sudden.
While therapy that works will often find a person experiencing a moment (or moments) of epiphany, these, alone are not enough. More importantly, if the groundwork isn’t laid, if we don’t carefully approach the molten material laying inside, the hoped for healing will be pushed beyond our current grasp. I have worked with some gifted, resourceful and wise therapists over the years. Those who supported me while I moved through my changes, at my speed and with the inner resources I then possessed, were among the greatest gifts of my life. People can only do….well, what they can do. Working with anyone in pain who is seeking relief will always entail a delicate and rich dance. A therapist has many tasks and they include support and protection of the wounded heart that sits within us as well as the gentle prod which over the course of the work facilitates change. I worked for two years when I first arrived in the Northwest with a blessedly wonderful woman, Peg Blackstone who, I grieve to say, died some years ago. Peg taught me this lesson and I thank her in my mind and heart repeatedly. Change is organic. It is incremental and very personal. Much of what we do that now causes us distress is almost always a useful strategy we devised long ago to protect ourselves. So much energy went into this protective effort, which for so long was so vital, that when the threat receded, we were left with a strongly held suit of protective armor. That armor separates us from the love and connection – the peace – we crave, but to simply step out of this suit will leave us naked and vulnerable. We need to grow a new protective skin – which isn’t quite so thick. Watch your skin next time you cut or scrape yourself. Your body tells you – healing is incremental.